Figuring out who are the real NDNs

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In recent columns I used the phrase "to out-Indian" and the term
"out-Indianing." A couple of readers asked me about my seeming
preoccupation with the concept. "Actually," I responded, "out-Indianing is
what it's all about in much of Indian affairs - especially in the last few
decades."

In the mid-1960s, the media brought the issues of reservation and urban
Indian poverty to the public forefront, and being Indian came into vogue.
New leaders were emerging in Indian country, and in most cases they were
ones who matched the stereotypes the media looked for as representatives of
the race. Especially in the urban-Indian communities, the question often
arose as to who the real Indians were and what constituted being a "real"
Indian. Then the practice of out-Indianing came about.

As ideologies formed around that era's new activist movements, being a
"real" Indian required adherence to certain traits, demeanor and dress. A
real Indian, for example, eschewed suit and tie, but wore equally
non-Indian and stereotypical Hollywood attire such as leather vests,
headbands and fringes all over. So-called "Rez cars" were no longer
embarrassments; decorated with ostentatious displays of dream catchers,
little war bonnets, and "Indian Pride" bumper stickers, they became faddish
and an effective means of out-Indianing.

Epithets like "apple" and "Uncle Tomahawk" came into derisive usage in
Indian circles to describe those who didn't conform to the new traits,
dress and demeanor. These were fashioned after the epithets of the more
radical Black movement. As the term "Oreo" charged "black on the outside
and white on the inside," so the term "apple" charged "red on the outside
and white on the inside." In other words, a sellout, not a real Indian.

I'm reminded here of an incident from the early American Indian Press
Association days when one of our associates, a bright and winsome Lakota
woman, was called an apple. She responded that if some people were so
insistent that she was a sellout, she'd rather be called a radish: "red on
the outside, white on the inside ... and HOT."

In these times, there is a new distinction between the real Indian and the
lesser, "colonized" Indian. This is based on such breaches of standards as
using certain terminology, e.g., "tribe" instead of "nation," and having
Indian-kitsch curios hanging from one's rear-view mirror.

Not long ago, a grandniece of mine was wearing a T-shirt with the bold
letters "NDN" on the front. When I asked her what it meant, she replied,
"Duuuh ... just pronounce it." I had to bonk myself on the forehead and
apologize profusely, "Oh, 'Indian': of course." But having to ask the
question placed me squarely in the ranks of a new caste - un-hip Indian.

"Out-hipping" is another form of out-Indianing. That means being hip to the
latest buzzwords like NDN and the latest jokes about welfare, commodities
and frybread.

In Indian circles, one can also be "out-reverenced." That is having to be
corrected, icily, about something that is or should be considered too
sacred for jocularity. I learned to stay out of American Indian chat rooms
on the Internet when I was informed that I should be ashamed for using the
Lakota name Heyoka (he's sacred), and even joking about that little
prehistoric Woody Herman, Kokopeli (sacred, too). I was excoriated for
saying I am Oglala Sioux instead of Oglala Lakota.

The term "frybread" (what us old timers used to call "fried bread" back in
the '40s and '50s) is yet another heretofore fashionable symbol of
Indianness doomed for the bone yard of ethno-political incorrectness. The
South Dakota Legislature, by enactment, has recently named frybread as an
official symbol of the state: the state food, joining the state bird, state
animal and state song. It was a nice gesture of reconciliation, but state
acceptance will undoubtedly doom that sumptuously decadent dish, already on
the endangered list on behalf of the real Indians who proclaim obesity as a
stigma of colonized Indianness. The great economic benefits to families and
non-profit fund raisers of Indian Taco sales will have gone by the wayside,
as will the beneficial utility of commodity lard.

My God, Heyoka, what is an apple, colonized, un-hip, irreverent,
pseudo-savage Sioux to do? Perhaps I will open up a school of fashionable
Indian correctness. With such ever-changing modes in Indian vogue, I will
get rich. And although excoriated from various quarters, I'll at least find
some comfort in my passe, un-hip non-Indianness.

Charles E. Trimble is an Oglala Lakota from the Pine Ridge Indian
Reservation. He was principal founder of the American Indian Press
Association in 1970, and served as executive director of the National
Congress of American Indians from 1972- 78. He is president of Red Willow
Institute in Omaha, Neb. and a columnist for Indian Country Today.